Sweltering summers in the Florida Keys – part-timers head north to milder climates for a few months, and residents prove their tenacity by surviving the oppressive “dog days”.
According to Bob Williams, utility bills for local homeowners spike to an average $300-$400 a month in the summertime. Since building his new sustainable home in Marathon two years ago, Williams has been able to reduce his utility cost to around $55 a month year round.
The Williams family has long been conscious of their energy consumption and carbon footprint.
While the air conditioning unit in their old home, with a west-facing glass wall, churned out thousands of watts of power, Bob and his wife Jerrie drew out the plans for their new abode.
Since 1976, Williams has been creating “lifestyle systems” for wealthier clients through his company, Sea Air Land Technologies, Inc. Yachts, RVs and off-grid homes are outfitted with alternative energy based electrical and refrigeration systems, water makers and air conditioners.
With the construction of his home, Williams is effectively demonstrating what he’s advocating. The irony, he admits, is that he cannot necessarily afford all the products he sells.
“Even though I’m trying to demonstrate what I advocate, it was hard for my wife and I to rationalize spending 15-20 percent of the overall cost of our home on a roof to reduce radiant energy,” he explained.
How It All Started
Bob and Jerrie met in their senior year of high school in Alexandria, Va. He, the Air Force brat, had just returned from Marianas Islands in the Western Pacific Ocean and she, the Navy brat, from Madrid. Life without modern conveniences was not an uncomfortable or confounded notion.
After high school, Bob ventured back to his home state where his passion for sailing set the course for his future. Between apprenticing for boat builder Charley Morgan and launching his own yacht delivery service, Williams taught sailing, seamanship and navigational classes at the Annapolis sailing school in St. Petersburg.
Just as he explains many people’s initial discomfort at the thought of living without air conditioning, Williams was often charged with using “firm diplomacy” and “motivating persons not accustomed to offshore living” during the 360-mile round trip sails to the Dry Tortugas.
Jerrie eventually joined Bob in South Florida, and for more than a decade, he owned and operated a yacht delivery service. In 1989, he sold the business, and the pair set off for Costa Rica with the intent of establishing a sustainable living business. A flat economy prohibited them from getting the business off the ground and diverted them to their backup plan of raising a family in Marathon.
Umbilical Cords of Water and Power
These days, everyone is willing to hop on the “green” bandwagon. Williams laments that though there is a lot of inertia regarding the green movement, many of the efforts are not based on environmentally sound science.
“It’s very comparable to what’s going on in the health care industry,” he said. “There’s not a magic pill to help you lose weight, and you can’t just throw solar panels on your roof and say you’re green. It’s about making a lifestyle change.”
Bob’s looking to return to a simpler way of life – one resembling that of his stepmother, Joanie Williams, who grew up in the Keys. Our parents and grandparents, he explained, lived in the tropics without air conditioning. New homes, particularly in the Florida Keys, are built to make people feel like air conditioning is a life-support system. Williams’ goal is to provide an alternative system with a nod back to a simpler way of life.
“60-70% of energy use in the Florida Keys is air conditioning,” Williams said.
For that reason, Williams designed his home with a cupola-topped, strategically vented, white metal roof, “basically a solar umbrella,” he explained.
Bedrooms and living areas open onto a deep, shaded, south-facing veranda with French doors that can moved to catch prevailing breezes. Southerly breezes carry the heat generated in the kitchen and bathrooms, positioned on the north side of the house, out the other side. A wood and steel staircase leads to the third floor of the home. Though it looks like a hip loft space, it functions as a passive cooling space that draws warm air from within the home out through the cupola. Curtains and carpets trap salt and humidity, so the Williams decorated with simple rattan and wicker furniture to increase airflow. The laundry room, similar to many Keys homes built in the 1960s, is separated from the main living area on the ground floor. Doors and louvres open to carry heat away.
The Williams’s children, Forest, 13, and Rebecca, 18, agree that though it was a little warm in their new home in the beginning, acclimation is now the key to their comfort.
“Far more is accomplished towards reducing our carbon footprint through pragmatic tropical home design that compliments the environment in which we live,” Williams concluded.